Why It’s Okay to Fight in Front of the Kids (Usually)


In most cases a disagreement between spouses can be a positive learning experience for childrenThis morning my husband and I had a fight. This is a pretty uncommon occurrence in our house. We tend to be on the same page, so when we do argue it’s usually about something mundane. This morning it was a simple miscommunication about paying a bill.  Not really a big deal, but there were a few moments of “he said/she said,” and “you never listen to me.” Honestly, in my mind, it was barely a blip.

Then from the other room, I heard my daughter’s little voice, “No Mommy. No Daddy. You no be mean.”

It suddenly occurred to me. After years of private discourse, we have built a family. And, like every other aspect of our lives, how we behave as a couple deeply impacts us as a family. I remember when my parents fought. It made me feel sick. It broke my heart to think that perhaps I had done the same to my child. Part of me immediately wanted to say, “We will NEVER argue in front of our children again.”

However, as virtuous a sentiment as it is, the idea of never letting my children see my husband and I argue just wouldn’t settle. As much as I hated to create that feeling of anxiety and sadness in them, sheltering them from the realities of family life didn’t seem like a better alternative. Disagreements are a normal and even healthy facet of being in a relationship. The truth is that our arguments strengthen our family. They show that we are communicating. They show that we are working on our relationship. The healthy habits our children gain from watching their parents aren’t limited to exercise and healthy eating. 

[quote]Our children are watching both in times of charity and times of strife.[/quote] In the end, the conversation I had with my daughter went something like this:”I know that it can be scary when Mommy and Daddy disagree, but it’s okay. Even people who love each other sometimes disagree. It doesn’t mean that they don’t love each other. It just means that they have to work together to figure things out.” We exchanged kisses, hugs, and relief.

So often parenting is not about avoiding the negative, but using moments to teach and grow as a family. Now when we argue it isn’t solely about resolving a disagreement. It’s about laying a foundation for our family and teaching our kids about healthy relationships. 

Fight! The Experts Weigh In 

Children are like “emotional Geiger counters” according to psychologist E. Mark Cummings in the article, What Happens to Children When Parents Fight, on Diana Divecha’s website on childhood development and parenting, developmentalscience.com, because they look to their parent’s emotions for how safe they are.

The article reaffirms my thought that not all conflict is destructive. They write that conflict is a normal part of everyday life and in fact, it can be good for children to see their parents disagree. The difference is “how the conflict is expressed and resolved, and especially how it makes children feel that has important consequences for children.” [quote]Destructive conflict is defined by Cummings as arguments that are verbally aggressive, or use silent tactics like avoidance, walking out, or saying “whatever.” [/quote]

The Developmental Science article goes on to introduce family therapist Sheri Glucoft Wong, of Berkeley, California. Her philosophy is that home provides a training ground for real life. “Little eyes are watching, and little ears are listening.” Both Cummings and Glucoft Wong agree that children can benefit if parents manage conflict well. “Parents should model real life…at its best,” says Glucoft Wong. “Let them overhear how people work things out and negotiate and compromise.”

Likewise, an article on Care.com, Fighting in Front of Your Kids and Why You Need to Stop, talks about how it is a good thing for children to see how their parents manage disagreements. As long as they are managing it in a productive manner. The article asked Dr. Tina Tessina, psychotherapist and author, why this is. She said that couples should negotiate and discuss various issues in front of their children. It teaches them how relationships work and how to manage disagreements in a positive manner. 

When Fighting is Not Okaywhen done right fighting with your spouse can be good for your kids.

However, any kind of disagreement that includes harsh words, raised voices, or aggression of any kind teaches children that these methods of conflict resolution are okay rather than dysfunctional. “Fighting in front of kids also raises the anxiety level in children, because it threatens their secure home environment,” says Dr. Tessina. “Children who see their parents fight or argue worry about divorce. They also do not learn healthy, effective negotiation skills.”

The consequences of destructive conflict in a home are undeniable. Studies show that children as young as six-months-old are sensitive to their parent’s emotions. Other studies show that kindergartners who had insecurities stemming from their parents’ relationship were more likely to have adjustment problems in the seventh grade. And, a 2013 article in the Huffington Post cites a study published in the journal Child Development that follows a group of second- and third-graders for three years and found that those who were exposed to arguments between their parents lagged behind their peers in problem-solving skills due largely to their altered stress response. 

So what do you think? Is it okay to fight in front of the kids?